The Conservatives are estimating the cost of their omnibus crime bill at $78.6 million over five years, a figure the opposition says is unrealistic.
Opposition MPs have been pressing the government for a price tag for the Safe Streets and Communities Act since it was introduced two weeks ago, and hadn't been successful in hearing one until now. During testimony Thursday at a parliamentary committee, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews touted the bill but never disclosed the figure when asked about associated costs.
At the end of his appearance, Nicholson said he was leaving some documentation with analysis of the costs for the bill with the committee. Nicholson said much of the material had already been given to MPs last spring when they were arguing with the government over disclosing costs of previous crime bills. The papers include a breakdown of the costs for some measures that have already passed, and ones contained in the omnibus crime bill.
The omnibus crime bill combines nine bills that were introduced in previous sessions of Parliament and never passed. Only two come with added costs, according to the government's figures. Increased penalties for drug crimes are estimated to cost $67.7 million over five years because of higher prison populations and new mandatory minimum sentences for sexual offences are expected to cost $10.9 million over two years and additional funding to be approved after that.
On the other seven bills that are contained in the omnibus bill, the government says there are "no federal costs."
The government's figures also indicate that the crime bills already passed by Parliament are estimated to cost $2.5 billion over five years. Those measures, combined with the omnibus bills, brings the total to $2.7 billion over five years.
On Power & Politics with Evan Solomon, Toews said some costs for the omnibus bill will be borne by the provinces and they are aware of that, but he couldn't provide any figures. He also said that the $78.6 million is only an estimate and could fluctuate depending on how many people end up in jail.
"Let's recall that these numbers are very, very sketchy estimates at best," he said. "This is the best we can do in terms of looking into the future."
Toews said officials from different departments came up with the numbers and he couldn't specify the methodology. "I don't figure out the math, I give that to the officials who have all of the available data," said Toews.
Parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page is tackling the omnibus crime bill and will try and come up with his own estimate of its price tag. He said he thinks it will exceed $3 billion but cautioned he had yet to do his analysis.
Toews said that Page has been wrong more often than he has been right.
NDP justice critic Joe Comartin said he had never heard the $78.6-million figure before, and dismissed its accuracy saying the number is "ridiculous."
"They're playing with these figures and they're not accurate," he told CBC News.
Ministers push for quick passage
During the appearance by Toews and Nicholson at the justice committee earlier in the day, they said the crime bill targets the right people while protecting victims and urged its speedy passage.
The few Liberal and NDP MPs on the committee questioned the ministers about the fallout on the provinces from the federal legislation. The justice minister said this is the fourth time the drug law reforms have been proposed and that the provinces are well aware of the possible consequences for them because of increased prisoner populations.
More people are expected to be in jail once the changes are enacted due to the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes, including the possession of more than six marijuana plants. The ministers were asked for more specifics on that provision, such as whether someone having six seedling plants in a window box would qualify them for a jail sentence if convicted.
Nicholson said the bill is meant to target drug traffickers, not drug addicts, and that his critics often neglect to mention that the person has to be in possession of the drugs for the purpose of selling them in order to fall under the provision.
Bill aimed at drug traffickers not addicts
"That is an essential element of the offence," he said. The justice minister said that the government's national anti-drug strategy tries to reach those who are addicted to drugs, and that the proposed legislation is not meant to target them.
"Certainly we want to help those individuals who have unfortunately become addicted. This bill is very specific. It goes after those individuals who are in the business of selling and distributing and producing drugs. It takes aim at organized crime," he said.
Do you think it's urgent to pass the omnibus crime bill? Have your say.
Other changes proposed in C-10 are wide-ranging and involve amendments to a number of existing laws. The reforms include restricting the use of conditional sentences for certain offences, new mandatory minimum sentences and increasing maximum penalties for some sexual offences, introducing mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes, not allowing pardons to be granted to some repeat offenders, new conditions for prisoner transfers from foreign countries, and allowing Canadians to sue foreign governments for perpetrating or supporting terrorist acts.
The government will issue a list of those foreign governments that would be open to prosecution, and Liberal MP Irwin Cotler asked Toews whether he is willing to consider alternatives to that approach.
Toews said that following an earlier discussion with Cotler on this matter, he asked his officials if it would be justified to consider alternatives to a listing mechanism.
"I'm willing to consider arguments but this is where officials advise us is the best route at this point," said Toews.
The omnibus crime bill, promised by the Conservatives during the spring election, is the subject of much criticism by the opposition parties. It bundles together nine bills that were introduced in previous sessions of Parliament and never passed. With a majority in the House of Commons and Senate now, the Conservatives will be able to push C-10 through successfully. They promised to pass it within 100 sitting days of Parliament.
"I urge the committee to work with the government to support the timely enactment of the safe streets and communities. We are taking action to protect families, stand up for victims and hold individuals accountable," said Nicholson.
The opposition parties have been demanding to know how much all of the reforms are going to cost. The government hadn't provided a price tag for C-10 until Thursday. Every time ministers were asked about one, they said that the cost of crime to victims and society is billions of dollars per year.